Former Morristown Pastor Barred from Performing Priestly Duties; Decision Comes after Diocese's Probe of Sex Abuse Case
By Abbott Koloff
Daily Record (Morristown, NJ)
January 28, 2004
Bishop Frank Rodimer has ordered Monsignor John Henry Dericks, a former Morristown pastor accused of molesting a teenage girl in the 1960s, indefinitely barred from performing priestly duties in what appears to be the first such case to reach a conclusion in the Paterson Roman Catholic Diocese.
"Monsignor Dericks has been instructed that he can no longer function as a priest," Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for the bishop, said Tuesday of Dericks. "His faculties are suspended."
While Rodimer's decision effectively concludes the case for church officials, it left victim advocates disappointed by the way the bishop chose to implement it. In a letter to the alleged victim's adviser, Rodimer said his decision was not designed to punish Dericks.
Vatican officials previously ruled that Dericks, in his late 80s, should not be subjected to a church trial because of his age, leaving it up to the bishop to decide his fate. Dericks retired as a priest years ago but still performed some priestly duties, such as celebrating Mass at area parishes, until he was barred from that practice almost two years ago while his case went through the church's judicial process.
The bishop's decision to extend the priest's suspension appears to make it permanent. Thompson said Dericks has the option of appealing the decision to Rome. The priest's canon lawyer, who represents him in church matters, did not return a phone call Tuesday. Dericks declined to comment when reached by phone.
"I am not going to talk to you," Dericks said. "That is that."
The bishop explained his decision in a letter written two weeks ago to Monsignor Kenneth Lasch, pastor of St. Joseph's parish in Mendham, who had been designated an adviser to the alleged victim. Cheryl Christopher, who claims she was molested by Dericks while the priest had an affair with her mother, was given a copy of the letter.
"I told Monsignor Dericks, as I tell you, that this precept has been issued, not to punish but to bring about healing for Cheryl Christopher and to uphold the integrity of the Church and the priesthood," Rodimer wrote in the letter.
Christopher said she was disappointed that the bishop's decision said nothing about the merits of her allegations. Dericks paid her $25,000 in a legal settlement years ago, although he denied molesting her. The priest has admitted, according to a letter Rodimer sent to Rome last year, to having an affair with Christopher's mother. He also admitted, according to that letter, to being intimate with the mother at his home while Christopher was in another part of the house.
Lasch, and other victims' advocates, said Rodimer's decision not only disappointed them, but left them confused.
"If it's not a punishment, what is it?" Lasch said.
The bishop's decision, according to his letter, bars Dericks from celebrating Mass in public but does allow him to hear confessions of a dying person in emergency situations. It says nothing about whether Dericks would be allowed to wear the clerical collar.
Thompson would not offer any clarification of the letter, saying the bishop's decision speaks for itself. Church officials previously said Rodimer might take into account facts that Dericks previously admitted. Victims' advocates have said those admissions might be considered a form of child abuse. Thompson would not say whether they were considered.
Mark Serrano, a former Mendham resident and board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Rodimer's decision sent a mixed message. He said it falls short of punishments called for by a charter implemented by American bishops following a Dallas conference two years ago. The charter calls for priests found to have sexually abused children to be removed from the priesthood, a process called laicization, or to live a life of penance and never present themselves as priests.
"Where's the life of penance for Dericks?" Serrano said.
Rodimer, in his letter to Lasch, said Vatican officials did not comment on the merits of the case against Dericks when they returned it to his jurisdiction. He asked Lasch to deliver a message.
"Please inform Ms. Christopher that she remains in my daily prayers and that it is my earnest hope that this decision will help her to know in her heart of hearts that her suffering has not been ignored," Rodimer wrote to Lasch. "I am deeply sorry, indeed grieved, for the pain and suffering Cheryl has endured throughout these many years and it is my hope that a new day and peace of heart is still possible for her."
Lasch responded with a letter in which he wrote that the bishop's decision, particularly his refusal to label it punishment, seemed to be an attempt to reduce the church's potential liability. He gave a copy of his letter to Christopher.
"I assume the wording of your letter was carefully drafted to avoid any possible risk of further litigation," Lasch wrote in the letter. "Here again, justice and charity (have) been suppressed to the fear of litigation."
Lasch went on in the letter to refer to information submitted to the diocese that he said contradicted some of Dericks statements about the case. He expressed disappointment that a church trial never would be held. Then he suggested ways for Rodimer to reach out to Christopher to "assuage her thirst for justice."
He suggested that Rodimer meet with her.
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